5 questions for a post-Kony 2012 debate

I am not going to write about Invisible Children and their Kony 2012 documentary. Many others have done so already and fellow bloggers at Whydev.org have a neat compilation of all the material. I found the 'We got trouble' and 'Taking "Kony 2012" Down a Notch' particularly good food for thought and reflections. But as I was reading through the material I came across 5 bigger issues and questions that I find important to address once the viral dust has settled a bit. As always, I'm writing this from the perspective of a blogging development researcher and teacher and my feeling is that 'we' will have to engage more and better to break through the cycle of 'good intentions' - '15 minutes of virtual fame' and 'viral critique' that seems to have become part of contemporary discussions and approaches on development.

1. Is transparency overrated?
Although the issue of transparency would probably come up quite early in a 'development' debate, it is surprising that many people, donors, sponsors etc. actually care less about transparency in reality than in their rhetoric. If a project, organisation or idea takes off and people buy into it, they forget or at least sideline their issues about transparency or the idea that '90% of the money' should go to 'the local people'. If the pitch is right, people will happily overlook 'technical' issues. But we shouldn't let organisations of the hook too easily. The development community needs to be more vocal and demand transparency right from the beginning and not as an add-on when the money is flooding in or when somebody has a few minutes to spare for administrative issues. Development needs managers, back offices and transparent structures - even if there seem so many more urgent issues to address.

2. Is doing something always better than sometimes doing nothing?
Depends on the 'nothing'. This is going to be key philosophical question for the new generation of DIY aiders, volunteers, social entrepreneurs and aidworkers. Right now, the majority of people would probably answer the question with 'Yes'. 'Doing' always trumps a qualified explanation and reflection as to why someone or some organisation is not doing something. It's a reminder that many traditional reflexes are still in place when it comes to 'helping children in Africa'. I really dream about a future where application letters for universities are not consisting of an applicant's philantropical achievements, but also reflections on why s/he didn't travel, didn't set up an organisation or just visited a place and listened to people and their stories. Mutually empowering experiences, learning and sowing the seeds for social change can happen without spectacular 'action' (see my recent post
Student question: How to use this experience to come as a sort of self-reflective practice of auto-evaluation and awareness-raising?)

3. How can we channel the energy, ideas and good intentions of young people into sustainable change for communities at home and abroad?
Both the number of viewers of the Kony 2012 documentary and the quality and quantity of responses shows that there is an incredible new generation out there that wants to get involved in development issues and really tries hard to prepare themselves. They can also be mobilised quickly and are vocal. I personally believe that one of the reasons is that many of those young women and men feel that they can't influence policy-making or shaping their community at home and turn abroad to explore possibilities. This global energy is great, but we bloggers, academics or experienced aid and community workers need to do a better job to channel some of this energy into non-development activities at home to avoid the repetitions of turning good intentions into bad development projects. It may not be a 'brain drain', but at least there's the danger of an 'ideas drain'. Local communities need active, educated, critical, media-savy citizens.

4. How can traditional approaches and new ideas cooperate better?
Invisible Children did not invent advocacy - or documentaries - or working in Africa. There's a long history behind the complex issues in Uganda and elsewhere that is difficult to summarise and doesn't fit into need catagories. One comment on the documentary I saw reposted a couple of times was 'you can spend half an hour watching the documentary - but you should spend half an hour reading an International Crisis Group briefing'. Not everything in development is doomed, failed, too slow and not 'sexy' enough. Young organisations should be encouraged to ask for help, guidance and mentoring - and experienced academics, aidworkers or diplomats need to make time in their own busy schedules. But the next generation also needs to prepare to take some advice on board - even if it means waiting, rethinking or changing the great idea that may change or fix everything.

5. Is it really that hard to overcome traditional habits?
Despite the critique the documentary seems to hit many right buttons - at least to ensure short-term attention. The model of 'spectacular event' and fame - critique (to the extent of 'shitstorm') - silence has become an issue in many part of politics, popular culture and professional life. Development work and advocacy reflect broader social changes and in the case of development also surprisingly persistent prejudices. There is something about 'saving African children' that grabs attention and almost automatically leads to donations and well-wishing despite increased information, well-educated younger people and shifts in how aid is funded and implemented. We probably need to do a better job in talking to an audience outside the academic comfort zone or blogosphere to remind them that a good 'pitch' may not work in the complex environment of development.

Kony 2012 is not the last event where good intentions, old habits and 'development 2.0' will clash. All I can do is hoping that every event and its critical aftermath also adds a little bit to the global repertoire of knowledge and that the next project may think a bit longer before the 'doing' starts.

P.S.: Why not stay connected with @aidnography ?


  1. Sam Lanfranco, York University, Canada9 March 2012 at 22:57

    This comment is about the transparency question. My own work starts from the assumption that transparency is not enough. If one looks at transparency.org it is quickly evident that "exposure" may raise outrage but frequently it produces little if any change. What is needed is accountability, and transparency is but a way station on the road to holding individuals, institutions and processes accountable. In the small (tiny) project I am working on we are just starting to push the idea of Supply Line Accountability and Transparency (SLAT) so that citizen consumers (70% of GDP in developed economies, more in developing) can exercise decisions that send meaningful signals back up the supply chain (via purchases, non-purchases, social action, policy pressure, whatever). Combining Consumer Sovereignty with "citizen social scientists" crowd sourcing supply line evidence has the potential to shift beyond transparency to effective action. Think of it as the opposite of Facebook, Google+, or your online store, data mining a dossier on you to sell to corporations. It is citizen researchers data mining the supply line (or political process, war, or whatever) to inform the citizenry of the planet in a way where both individual (consumer) action and collective (citizen) action can have an impact.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Links & Contents I Liked 500

The visible lessons of Invisible Children- #globaldev critique in the viral age (in response to Paul Currion)

Happy retirement Duncan Green!

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa